The BEST comprehensive guide to basic Chinese Astrology

You may have heard it on a once a year basis: Breaking News! This is the year of the fire monkey! Chinese Zodiac masters claim prosperity and peace! 

As a Westerner, you may have been curious. Why is this specific year called the year of the fire monkey? Why is it significant? And most of all, what is the Chinese Zodiac? 

Look no further as we take a (rather deep) dive into this complex branch of Astrology. Animals, mythology, and an enduring tradition that spans thousands of years- need we say more? 

What is Chinese Astrology? 

A dragon symbol of chinese astrology

As its name suggests, Chinese Astrology came from, well, China. But as history has told us, China was not always the great, massive country people know today. 

There is no clear background on who and what started this tradition. However, historians believe that its roots can be traced back to the oracle bones used to look into the future. 

Yet astrologers credit the Han Dynasty for being the ones who pushed for the ancient art’s flourishing. Like so many things that the Han Dynasty introduced, it endured for more than a thousand years. 

Like Western Astrology, the Chinese tradition has 12 Zodiac signs. Although, unlike its Western Counterpart, all the symbols are animals. 

There is also a firm belief in the influence that planets have. Birth Charts are also utilized to determine a person’s fate. 

Notably, though, there is the inclusion of natural elements that varies every Astrological cycle. These are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water

As in many ancient cultures, the Chinese believe that these elements have an extraordinary life force they give to those born under them. 

Another significant difference that Chinese Astrology has from its Western counterpart is its fundamental basis. While Western Astrology is solar in nature, the Chinese places far greater importance on the moon

Today, Chinese Astrology is one of China’s most significant cultural exports. 

Because of China’s trading prowess and influence, many East and Southeast Asians had come to know this old art way before Westerners did. 

Descendants of these enterprising Chinese still practice their ancestral craft. Some even see it as a way to connect to their roots that spans hundreds of generations. 

What is the context of Chinese Astrology? 

a tiger and a dragon animals symbols in chinese astrology

The story behind this Astrological tradition is something that generations of Chinese children know by heart. It is equal parts a fantasy and morality tale and still highlights the importance of this ancient art even to the present day. 

The story starts with the Jade Emperor announcing that he will be holding his birthday party on the ninth day of the first month. He promised great rewards for those diligent enough to come early. 

All the animals became excited when they heard about this party. So, they prepared themselves so that they would be able to attend as early as they could. 

The rat and cat live next to each other. Since they are friends, they agreed to go together to the party. 

Yet when the day of the party arrived, the rat went off early. Unfortunately, the cat was left behind since he was still sleeping, and the rat did not bother waking his friend. 

The wily rat sped off, hoping no one would catch him. But he stopped in his tracks when a great river appeared in front of him. 

Alone and unsure of what to do, the rat paced the riverbank. Suddenly, a friendly ox arrived to cross the river. 

Knowing that this is his one chance to get to the party, the rat asked the ox to hitch for a ride. The big yet gentle animal agreed, thinking that it is only noble to help a fellow animal out. 

While the ox lumbered on towards the emperor’s palace, the rat was already formulating his plans. No matter what happens, he is determined to win his imperial majesty’s favor! 

Both animals arrived at the palace safely. As the doors opened, the rat readied himself. 

The ox entered the great hall and walked towards the emperor. But the ever-cunning rat jumped off his companion’s back and was the first one to reach the emperor’s feet. 

The Jade Emperor praised the rat and gave him the honor of being the first of the Zodiacs, with the ox coming in a close second. Soon after, other animals arrived. 

The tiger came in, followed by the rabbit. The dragon arrived and was closely tracked by the snake and horse. 

The sheep, monkey, rooster, and dog soon followed. Much to the surprise of everyone, the pig came to the party despite his laziness. 

The Jade Emperor was pleased with his guests. As a reward for their loyalty, he announced that the 12 of them shall rule the Zodiacs for eternity. 

Festivities honoring both the emperor and his distinguished guests lasted long into the night. It almost seems that everything is going swimmingly! 

Yet the next day, an unexpected latecomer arrived. The cat, breathless after traveling as fast as he could, came to the palace. 

But instead of honor, he received mockery. He was laughed at for his tardiness. 

Angered, the cat vowed that his friend, the rat, is his enemy for eternity. He swore to never forgive the treachery of his supposed friend. 

Today, all the first 12 guests in the Jade Emperor’s birthday have the privilege of guiding the fates of the humans whom they are tasked to embody. 

As for the cat and rat, their feud goes on. Making true of their ancestor’s word, cats today hate rats and do their best to kill these vermin as vengeance for their disgraced forefather.     

What are the special meanings behind the animals? 

a chinese dragon in the street for chinese new year day

Of course, as Zodiac symbols, these 12 animals are bound to have meaning to them. But these Zodiacs don’t change every month! 

Instead, they change after one lunar year. This is precisely the reason why the Chinese New Year exists. 

It is important to remember that the Chinese New Year does not coincide with that of the solar new year. Meaning, it does not recognize January 1 as the start of a new year. 

So, for example, you were born on January 23, 1983. But the Chinese New Year happened weeks after your birthday, on February 13, 1983. 

This means that instead of being born on the Year of the Pig, you are instead a part of the Year of the Dog. 

Generally, though, astrologers would instead equate a year with the Zodiac animal to embody it for most of the year. It is then up to those born around January and February to determine their accurate Zodiac placements. 

As a general rule, the Zodiac sign repeats every 12 years. Here’s a quick rundown of the Zodiacs, their years, and meanings: 


Western Counterpart: Sagittarius 

Years: 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020 

Meanings: As the animal who outsmarted the other guests, the rat is, of course, described as ambitious, resourceful, and very intelligent. However, they can be cutthroat and uncompromising, too.  


Western Counterpart: Capricorn 

Years: 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021 

Meanings: The helpful ox is determined and noble. Yet, like their burly appearance, they can be stubborn and close-minded too. 


Western Counterpart: Aquarius 

Years: 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022 

Meanings: This large, ferocious feline is thought to be brave and generous. Unfortunately, they charge on things without rhyme or reason and tend to pick fights.  


Western Counterpart: Pisces 

Years: 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023 

Meanings: Fluffy and cuddly rabbit is gentle and kind towards others. But they are also shy and reserved at times, especially when they feel threatened. 


Western Counterpart: Aries 

Years: 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024 

Meanings: This great symbol of the Chinese might have the honor of being the only mythological animal of the Zodiac. They possess great charisma and prowess for leadership, but at times, merciless and tyrannical. 


Western Counterpart: Taurus 

Years: 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025 

Meanings: Calm and level-headed, the snake develops a propensity to assess situations before striking. Yet, this also causes them to be suspicious of others and mistrust anyone they don’t think are up to their standard.  


Western Counterpart: Gemini 

Years: 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026 

Meanings: Wild and free-spirited, the horse values independence more than anything else in the world. But they are also prone to nervousness and sometimes chatter out of the proper context.  


Western Counterpart: Cancer 

Years: 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027 

Meanings: The sheep is mellow and sweet. Yet, beneath this loving surface lies a character that is sometimes self-centered and insincere.  


Western Counterpart: Leo 

Years: 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028 

Meanings: Flashy and talkative, the monkey catches the attention of everyone whom they encounter. However, when they feel like their spotlight is not on them, they go nuclear and determined to stay on top. 


Western Counterpart: Virgo 

Years: 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029 

Meanings: Like their proud cockle to wake the world every morning, the rooster is hard-working and confident. But they are also arrogant at times and judgmental towards things they don’t agree upon.  


Western Counterpart: Libra 

Years: 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030 

Meanings: This loyal and honest animal places great importance on their sense of duty. Unfortunately, they are paranoid about their environment because of their protective nature and may go feral when unchecked.  


Western Counterpart: Scorpio 

Years: 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031 

Meanings: They may be the laziest of all the animals in the Zodiac, but they are also compassionate towards others. Yet, they can be easily deceived and tend to go into a rage when things go wrong. 

Who practices the Chinese Zodiac today? 

Although the tradition still survives in mainland China, most of its practitioners live outside the country. Descendants of Chinese migrants are those who managed to hold on to this ancient art. 

This may come as a surprise, but China’s turbulent 20th century contributed to the Astrological tradition’s decline in its homeland. 

Today, some of the best astrologers live outside the borders of China. Practitioners are mostly of Chinese heritage and are known to fuse Astrology with mainstream tradition. 

But like any other astrological tradition, anyone is free to practice it. Many Westerners took notice of this beautiful art during recent years and applied its values into their lives. 

Still, it is essential to remind oneself that this tradition is linked with a thousand years of culture and history. Even if you’re not of Chinese descent, you are free to practice it, but also practice it with respect.    

Final Word 

Chinese Astrology is undoubtedly a result of a thousand years of tradition that has been carefully kept for generations. Despite the chaos its home country endured for most of its history, it remains a focal point of Chinese culture. 

Its fascinating origin story also calls back to the nature of China itself: the fusion of reality and myth and the value of diligence and a sense of duty. 

Learning this astrological tradition is not just a way to improve one’s life but also to understand an impressive nation’s complexities. 

The intricacies of this ancient art’s structure are also something worth appreciating. Its manner of taking into account the rhythms and elements of nature is sometimes not found in other astrological traditions. 

Yet, for all its worth, Chinese Astrology does not dictate who a person is and what they will be. 

Like its counterparts worldwide, this tradition focuses on what the heavens have in store for all of us. Its foundations are both mathematics and tradition, furthering its credibility. 

Yet it cannot, in any way, control the will of a person. All of us have the innate ability to decide for ourselves outside of what the cosmos have said. 

It would be best to think of Chinese Astrology (and indeed, all astrological traditions) as something that is more like a guiding light than a constitution of some sort. It seeks to enlighten us to further our understanding of ourselves, of others, and the world. 

These traditions endure because of their ability to help people in becoming the best that they could. However, as always, the last call is still on us. 

Discern and think things through clearly. The reins of your fate lie on your hands alone.

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